I discovered Ferdinand von Schirach’s ‘The Collini Case’ through Caroline’s review of it. Even since I read Schirach’s short story collection ‘Crime’, I had hoped that some day he would write a novel. So, it was nice when I discovered that Schirach had put his legal talents into writing a novel and it has been translated into English. I read this book for genre week of German Literature Month. I read it in one sitting and here is what I think.
‘The Collini Case’ tells the story of a murder and the case which revolves around it. One day a man enters a luxury suite in a famous hotel in Berlin. He pretends to be a journalist who wants to interview the famous industrialist Hans Meyer, who is staying in that suite. The industrialist invites him inside his suite. A short while later, the industrialist is dead with bullets through his head. The man who entered his room goes to the hotel reception and reports the murder and asks the receptionist to call the police. He is Fabrizio Collini. He is arrested for murder. He gets a defence lawyer from the government. The defence lawyer is a newbie, Casper Lienen. It seems to be an open-and-shut case where the defence lawyer cannot do much. The only thing missing is the motive. Collini refuses to talk about it. He makes a confession that he murdered the victim but hee doesn’t say anything beyond that. By a strange coincidence, Lienen knows the victim, Hans Meyer. Lienen grew up with Meyer’s grandson Philipp and Lienen had a crush on Philipp’s sister Johanna. Meyer himself had treated him like his own grandson. Johanna calls Lienen and asks him angrily why he is defending the murderer. Lienen tries to withdraw from the case but then finally decides not to. Then one day during the trial he discovers a clue. And he discovers the truth behind Hans Meyer. And the motive behind Collini’s action. And the case becomes more complicated than it seems.
‘The Collini Case’ is an interesting novel. It is a fast-paced read and tells an interesting story. It describes how the German legal system works, explores some of the nitty-gritties of it and also explores philosophical issues related to law and justice. It asks some interesting questions :
- Who is a criminal and who is an accessory? Is there really a distinction?
- Can a defence lawyer withdraw from a case for personal reasons?
- For a violent act to be regarded as a crime should it be a crime according to the law that was in force at that time or should it be held to account according to some absolute moral standard?
- What are the pros and cons of the statute of limitations?
- Under what circumstances can a law not be repealed?
It is vintage Schirach. Though I have to say that I liked Schirach’s ‘Crime’ more, I found ‘The Collini Case’ a gripping read. It is tempting to compare Schirach with his countryman Bernhard Schlink, as both are in the legal profession (Schirach is a defence lawyer while Schlink is a former judge and current professor of law) and as both of them explore philosophical and moral issues pertaining to law and justice. Though both of them cover the same ground, I have to say that they are as different as chalk and cheese and each is unique in his own way.
If you like a not-so-big, fast-paced legal thriller which asks some interesting questions, you will like ‘The Collini’ Case’. I will leave you with two of my favourite passages from the book.
Leinen used the dry language of the law, saying only what he had heard from Collini and what he had founding the files in Ludwigsburg. But as he read out the statement, as he presented the horror of it sentence by sentence, the courtroom itself changed. People, landscapes and towns came into view, the sentences became images, the images came to life, and much later one of those who had heard Leinen said he had been able to smell the fields and meadows of Collini’s childhood. However, something else, something different, was happening to Caspar Leinen himself : for years on end he had listened to his professors, he had learned the law and its interpretation, he had tried to get a good grasp of criminal proceedings – yet only today, only in his own first plea to the court, did he understand that those proceedings were really about something quite different : abused human beings.
Leinen didn’t like those large outfits where up to eight hundred lawyers might be employed. The young men there looked like bankers, had first-class degrees and had bought cars that they couldn’t afford; whoever could charge clients for the largest number of hours at the end of the week was the winner. The partners in such large practices already had two marriages under their belts; they wore yellow cashmere sweaters and checked trousers at weekends. Their world consisted of figures, posts on directorial boards, a consultancy contract with the Federal government and a never-ending succession of conference rooms, airport lounges and hotel lobbies. For all of them, it was a disaster if a case came to court : judges were too unpredictable.
Have you read ‘The Collini Case’? What do you think about it?